Reading Coleridge Reading Blake
David M. Baulch
(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 16, Winter 2000, pp 5-14)
In 1818 Charles Augustus Tulk, a well-known Swedenborgian and occasional patron of William Blake, loaned Samuel Taylor Coleridge his copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Extant are two of Coleridge’s responses to Blake’s work. His most well-known and lengthy response, chronologically the second of the two, appears in a letter to Tulk on 12 February 1818. Here, Coleridge shows no interest in Blake’s use of symbols; instead, the vast majority of his comments reflect a surprisingly doctrinaire and flatly moralistic view of Blake’s poems. As B.R. McElderry, Jr. writes, Coleridge’s critical approach “suggests the school master rather than the master critic.” He concludes that “Blake’s poems do not appear to have called forth in Coleridge the critical subtlety they deserved.”
Only six days before Coleridge wrote to Tulk, he appended a
postscript to a letter to the Reverend Henry Francis Cary on his experience of
reading Songs. In this instance, Coleridge’s comments, as
M.H. Abrams notes, show “remarkable insight” into Blake’s work. Here, Coleridge calls Blake an “apo- or rather—ana-calyptic
Poet and Painter!” (CL IV 834). In an
article that concentrates solely on the 6 February 1818 postscript to
Just as Coleridge presents two conflicting evaluations of Blake’s poetry, McElderry’s and Ferber’s comments on Coleridge’s letters suggest unaccountably different levels of Coleridge’s critical acuity. But both are limited in their assessments by their failure to acknowledge the very different demands of the two epistolary exchanges. McElderry’s analysis does not consider that the 12 February 1818 letter is a part of Coleridge’s on-going discussion with Tulk, in which Coleridge attempts to recast the link between theoretical and practical criticism as it appears in the Biographia Literaria, and to defend a more or less orthodox Anglican theology as the basis of his social vision: it belongs to a series of deeply intelligent and densely philosophical letters. Similarly, Ferber’s conclusions about the 6 February 1818 letter fail to
take into account the context of the on-going
conversation about poetry and publishers that Coleridge conducts with the
Reverend Cary. According to Ferber, in the letter to
In short, McElderry finds Coleridge’s response to Tulk
hopelessly naive, while Ferber concludes that Coleridge’s comments to
While Coleridge’s critical masterwork, the Biographia Literaria, is often viewed as a founding document for the kind of critical objectivity the New Critics sought, the text itself suggests a much more complex picture. In responding to the number of different and even contradictory demands that
result from its multi-generic development by accretion, the Biographia sees itself as simultaneously engaged in a both a personal, autobiographical, criticism and a criticism that seeks to make universal claims about the nature of poetic language and the character of the poet. Chapter One of the Biographia thus identifies the personal nature of its claims about literary criticism as a “statement of my principles in Politics, Religion, and Philosophy and the application of the rules, deduced from philosophical principles, to poetry and criticism” (BL I 5, emphasis mine). Further the Biographia’s criticism is not simply personal; it is also interpersonal in seeking “a settlement of the long continued controversy concerning the true nature of poetic diction: and at the same time to define with the utmost impartiality the real poetic character of the poet, by whose writings this controversy was first kindled, and has been since fuelled and fanned” (BL I 5). Here, it is specifically within the interpersonal context of his disagreements with Wordsworth that Coleridge claims his criticism is both objective and absolute. Given the psychological depth and complexity of the context presented by the difficult relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, significant portions of the second volume of the Biographia must be viewed as part of an interpretative community that includes a range of issues that are not strictly literary. These extra-literary issues are an essential part of what is at stake for Coleridge’s on-going dispute with Wordsworth’s views on poetic diction and the poet in the prefaces to the Lyrical Ballads. As in the case of the conflicting Blake letters, an apparent contradiction arises, one which can only be interpreted within the context of the particular interpretative community relevant to each of the letters.
Taking the Biographia as an example of the way Coleridge’s criticism is predicated upon the intersection of various interpretative communities, Coleridge’s greatest, sustained critical effort can serve as an example of the kind of attention to context that an interpretation of Coleridge’s criticism in all its manifestations demands. McElderry’s reading of Coleridge’s discussion of Blake in his letter to Tulk only serves to make Coleridge’s criticism look superficial without realizing or acknowledging that the letter on Blake’s Songs must be seen within the context of the political and theological discussions that Coleridge has been having with Tulk. The most active period of Coleridge’s exchange of letters with Tulk comes soon after they met in September of 1817. In general, Coleridge’s letters to Tulk are spectacular in terms of their interest in emphasizing the Christian basis of Coleridge’s philosophy. The letters present themselves as a continuation of Coleridge’s speculations in the first book of the Biographia, rather than as overt gestures of retraction or as significant recastings of those positions.
Tulk was undoubtedly an excellent audience for Coleridge’s thoughts, since his intellectual interests were primarily political and theological. Tulk was a Member of Parliament from 1820-26 and from 1835-37, and with Coleridge he was a strong proponent of tougher child labor laws (CL IV 841-844). Tulk’s connection to Blake was a direct one. He was a patron of Blake’s leaner, later years, meeting him through the artist John Flaxman. From Blake, Tulk had purchased copy M of the early work There is No Natural Religion, copy C of Poetical Sketches (which Blake personally inscribed to Tulk), and copy J of Songs of Innocence and of Experience.  Tulk apparently asked Coleridge to read Songs and to offer his opinion in late January or early February 1818. As Raymond Deck observes, “[T]he most interesting part of Coleridge’s comment is evidence that Tulk seems to have presented Blake as a non-sectarian Swedenborgian.” Within this context, Coleridge’s response to Blake’s poetry must be seen as a part of Coleridge’s critique of Swedenborg. In play here are the same complex claims of the Biographia. Coleridge’s treatment of Blake’s poems in the letter of February 12th repeats some of the more literalistic objections the Biographia makes to Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode.”
In the letter to Tulk, the rhetoric of Coleridge’s response to Blake’s visual art and the poem “Infant Joy,” although largely positive, echo the Biographia’s characterization of Wordsworth’s defect of “mental bombast” as “a fault of which none but a man of genius is capable” (BL 136). Coleridge says of the visual aspect of Blake’s designs that the “Title-page and the following emblem contain all the faults of the drawings with as few beauties as could be in the compositions of a man capable of such faults and such beauties” (CL IV 837). Coleridge’s responses to the strictly verbal aspect of Blake’s text are cast in terms of a curious critical apparatus of ratings symbols which signify the following categories of response: “It gave me great pleasure,” “Still greater,” “And greater still,” and the extremes of “In the highest degree,” and “In the lowest”(CL IV 837). Interestingly enough, while he gives “Infant Joy” the next to highest rating in his scheme, he finds a fault with it similar to that which he finds with Wordsworth’s child-philosopher in the “Intimations Ode.” He suggests that “for the 3 last lines I should wish–When wilt thou smile, or–O smile, O smile! I’ll sing the while–For a Babe two days old does not, cannot smile–and innocence and the very truth of Nature must go together. Infancy is a thing too holy to be ornamented” (CL IV 837).
Despite Coleridge’s seemingly literalistic
objection, it is important to note the similarity of this resistance to Blake’s
infant as having a great deal in common with his objections to Wordsworth’s
depiction of his own infant son Hartley in the “Intimations Ode.” As Paul Hamilton suggests, this objection
does a great deal to show “Coleridge’s poetics in relation to his political and
According to the Biographia, the
prophetic abilities Wordsworth attributes to the child-philosopher represent a
species of pantheism beyond that which Coleridge claims to find in “SPINOZA and BEHMEN”(BL
139). Because of the heterodox potential
of the infant as a symbolic figure,
Among the poems that Coleridge finds the greatest fault with, I want to concentrate on those which have an immediate bearing on Coleridge’s critical performance within a theological and, to a lesser extent, a political context. Coleridge dislikes both of the Chimney Sweeper poems, which from the stand point of their politics is hard to fathom since Coleridge discusses child labor conditions with Tulk in the same period in which he also probably penned the anonymous and brilliantly Swiftian letter to The Courier on March 31, 1818 about the number of hours worked by children in the cotton factories. Coleridge may well be reacting negatively to these poems because of the doubt that they cast upon the figure of the angel who acts as a jailer in “The Chimney Sweeper” of Innocence and the overt criticism of Church and state in “The Chimney Sweeper” of Experience. Rather than indicating a critical myopia, as McElderry’s evaluation of the Tulk letter claims, Coleridge’s position on these poems suggest that he is well aware of their religious and
political implications and that he is actively foregrounding these concerns as a part of his on-going engagement with Tulk. In turn, the interpretative community in which the letter to Tulk participates suggests that Coleridge’s comments on Blake’s poems are less about Blake’s poems than they are devoted to a defense of the church and state relationship as the bastion of spiritual and political order, an order within which Tulk, as both a Swedenborgian and influential progressive political figure, must be seen as occupying an important and ideologically complex position.
Not surprisingly then, Coleridge takes, in his own terms, “the
lowest degree” of pleasure in Blake’s “To Tirzah.” Among the things which he surely would object
to in this compressed expression of Blake’s own interpretation of Christian
doctrine is the use of Jesus’ rejection of his mortal mother in John 2:4, “What
have I to do with thee,” as the refrain of this song. Surely, “To Tirzah” would strike Coleridge as
a blatant instance of the pantheism he was so uncomfortable with in his own
earlier work, and which he denounces so flatly in Wordsworth’s “Intimations
Ode.” Blake’s use of Jesus to suggest a constitutive role for the mortal
imagination as the universal creative force, rather than finding the
imagination’s transcendent source in a God different in kind from man, could
not have escaped Coleridge. In terms of the political implications of “To
Tirzah,” the rejection of the mother is also a symbolic rejection of the
importance of inheritance or bloodline.
As an attack on inheritance, “To Tirzah” undermines the stronghold of
aristocratic power as the basis of
Eliciting the lengthiest comment from Coleridge is “The Little Vagabond.” Coleridge’s objections to the poem’s critique of mainstream forms of worship place this text outside the bounds of his rating scheme, but this reaction clearly indicates his investment in raising objections to the practices of dissenting sects.
Tho’ I cannot approve of this last poem and have been inclined to think that the error which is most likely to beset the scholars of Emanuel Swedenborg is that of utterly demerging the tremendous
incompatibilities with an evil will that arise out of the essential Holiness of the abysmal Aseity in the love of the eternal Person–and thus giving temptation to weak minds to sink this Love itself into good nature…
(CL IV 837)
Here, Coleridge clearly reads Blake specifically in the Swedenborgian context relevant to Tulk. It also becomes clear why Coleridge is not interested in anything like a New Critical notion of the strictly literary merits of Blake’s Songs. Within the critical context of the Coleridge-Tulk exchange, the question of literary merit is necessarily of a second order in the face of the radical ideological implications of Blake’s poetry. What is at stake for Coleridge’s criticism in this context is not so much whether a poem is “good” as a poem, but whether the poem has the potential to undermine the moral and political structure of the church and state.
Examined in isolation, the letter to Tulk has the potential to yield much the same impression as McElderry reports. While McElderry questions whether “purely literary concerns influence his [Coleridge’s] judgment,” but he does not go on to attempt an answer to this question, and he is thereby at a loss to provide his promised interpretation of the letter’s “significance as a critical utterance of Coleridge’s Highgate period.” Clearly the answer is not simply to be found, as McElderry thinks, in Blake’s poems themselves; rather, the significance of Coleridge’s critical utterance is in the specifically ideological and religious issues at stake in context of the Coleridge-Tulk interpretative community.
Within the context of his theological discussions with Tulk,
Coleridge is more concerned that he illustrate his differences from and
objections to what he perceives as Blake’s Swedenborganism than he is to
establish a strictly delimited sense of the literary merit of Songs.
But even placing the letter to Tulk within the context of a complex
theological and political discussion still leaves the impression that Coleridge
fails to grasp the idea of the Blakean “system.” Yet, the impression of an ideologically
defined interest in Blake’s poetry in the Tulk letter is neither the limit of
Coleridge’s interest in Songs, nor is
it the extent of his understanding Blake’s poetry in a more general sense. Evidence for the depth of Coleridge’s understanding
of Blake is in the postscript of the
faced with the problem of finding publishers for
their respective works. Much of the
correspondence concerns Coleridge’s efforts to help
He [Blake] is a man of Genius–and I apprehend, a Swedenborgian--certainly, a mystic emphatically. You perhaps smile at my calling another Poet, a Mystic; but verily I am in the very mire of common-place common-sense compared with Mr. Blake, apo- or rather anacalyptic Poet, and Painter! (CL IV 834)
Of particular interest is Coleridge’s sudden decision to switch in the very midst of the word “apocalyptic” to the term “anacalyptic” to describe Blake’s poetry and painting. While the term apocalyptic has been applied to Blake innumerable times, the question of what anacalyptic means and why Coleridge might have thought the term more appropriate to describe Blake’s theological vision is intriguing. The gesture itself suggests an enthusiasm for the imaginative power of Blake’s unorthodox theology and poetic vision that Coleridge only allows to emerge when there is no need to defend his own beliefs.
On the term anacalyptic, Ferber suggests that it is a “a near synonym” to apocalyptic. He finds it likely that Coleridge picked the term up in translating the New Testament’s Second Corinthians from the Greek. Here, it commonly has the meaning of unveiling. As John Beer observes, Coleridge associates the motif of veiling and unveiling with Moses in the Old Testament as a prefiguration of the New Testament. In his notebooks, Coleridge calls Moses the “Veil of the Light,” “the Veil of Christ,” and “Christ under the Veil.” Ferber speculates that “if ‘anacalyptic’ has anything to do with reading the Old Testament in the light of the New, or of reading anything in a spiritual sense, its relevance to Blake is obvious.” What Ferber suggest as being “obvious” here is the way in which most of Blake’s canon has been read as an obsessive revisioning of the Bible. While Ferber’s speculation opens some interesting possibilities, one can never be sure of precisely what Coleridge implied by his usage of the term. Ferber finds himself puzzled because
“[t]here are no veiled maidens in the Songs of Innocence and of Experience,
and Coleridge probably did not know, in the ‘encyclical’ sense of knowledge,
But the question remains as to how Coleridge was able to think
of Blake as anacalyptic in the first place.
It is unlikely that he could have come to this conclusion solely from
his reading of Songs. The most likely source of Coleridge’s
knowledge of Blake was, of course, Tulk, and Tulk may well may have been the
most sophisticated reader of Blake during the period. Tulk is thought to have authored the
anonymous article “The inventions of William Blake, painter and poet” in the London University Magazine (vol II
[March 1830]). This article offers one of the most deeply
informed early explications of Blake’s work.
Among other things, it discusses the multiple levels of significance of
the Blake’s figure
If Tulk is the author of “The inventions of William Blake, painter and poet,” then it would explain a great deal about the source of Coleridge’s notion of Blake as an anacalyptic artist. On the basis of the insight in the article, Tulk could well have given Coleridge a complete enough view of Blake’s work to allow him to formulate this idea. What this suggests about Coleridge is that, even within the privacy of personal letters, what he felt to be at stake in the conversation had a great deal to do with the content of his criticism. While he may have gathered significant insight about Blake from Tulk, his need to establish and defend his own religious and political views understandably takes precedence. Yet, when Coleridge’s politics and spiritual
beliefs are not what is immediately at stake in
his criticism, his critical position, as in the exchange with
What emerges from a comparison of Coleridge’s critical thoughts on Blake in the two letters considered in the appropriate contexts provided by two different interpretative communities is the expression of a passionate, enthusiastic, and multifaceted mind that presents itself as having both an unbounded interest in the poetic imagination and a stubborn awareness of the theological and political stakes in a critical utterance. Clearly, Coleridge is not objective, nor does he consider Songs of Innocence and of Experience as an autonomous critical object that contains its own meaning divorced from specifically ideological concerns relevant to the cultural milieu from which it was produced. To say that Coleridge’s criticism is not objective is hardly to slight Coleridge’s critical achievement. Recognizing the extent to which Coleridge’s criticism is never simply “literary” is to recognize the incredible depth and diversity of Coleridge’s interests and investments. Even as Coleridge has been enshrined as an avatar of New Critical thought, these letters suggest that Coleridge’s criticism presages the limitations of the New Critical paradigm, foregrounding the complex stakes of different interpretative communities.
 McElderry, Jr., B.R., “Coleridge on Blake’s Songs” Modern Language Quarterly 9 no. 3 (1948): 298-302. Page 298.
 Ibid., 302.
 Abrams, M.H., Natural Supernaturalism (New York: Norton, 1971): 264.
 Ferber, Michael, “Coleridge’s ‘Anacalyptic’ Blake: An Exegesis” Modern Philology (November 1978): 189-193. p 193.
 Stanley Fish set out his notion of “interpretative communities” in the various essays that comprise Is There a Text in This Class (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980) Similarly, Marilyn Butler in Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981) suggests, one cannot speak of Coleridge’s criticism as a narrowly defined literary criticism, “for,” as she claims, “distortion enters in if it is treated as writing wholly or even mainly concerned with literary issues”(69).
 For a good indication of the scope and importance of Coleridge as a critic and theorist in the mid-twentieth century see the beginning of René Wellek’s chapter on Coleridge in A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955): 151.
 Richard Holmes presents one of the most through considerations of the role of Coleridge’s relationship with Wordsworth in terms of the way it effects the development of the Biographia. See Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834 (New York: Pantheon, 1998) pages 382-5 and 388-90.
 The first of the existing letters that Coleridge wrote to Tulk is dated Sept 1817. In this letter, Coleridge cast his decidedly more Christian speculations to Tulk as filling the “gap’ left in his philosophical project in the Biographia: “In my literary Life you will find a sketch of the subjective Pole of the Dynamic Philosophy; the rudiments of Self-construction, barely enough to let a thinking mind see what it is like--in the third Volume of the Friend, now in the Press, you will find the great results of this philosophy in it’s relation to Ethics and Theology--while the inclosed Scrawl contains a very, very rude and fragmentary delineation of the Objective Pole, or the Science of the Construction of Nature...”(CL IV 767).
 Deck, Raymond H., jr., “A New Light on C.A. Tulk, Blake’s 19th Century Patron” Studies in Romanticism 16, no. 2 (1977): 217-236.
 Ibid., 221.
 The last three lines of Blake’s “Infant Joy” from The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by David V. Erdman, Newly Revised Edition (New York: Doubleday, 1988) (cited as E hereafter) run as follows:
Thou dost smile.
I sing the while
Sweet joy befall thee. (10-12 E 16)
Hamilton, Paul, Coleridge’s Poetics (
 Ibid., 167.
 The critical passage from “The Chimney Sweeper” in Songs of Innocence concerns Tom Dacre’s dream:
As Tom was a sleeping he had such a sight,
That thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack
Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black.
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he open’d the coffins & set them all free. (10-14 E 10)
In Tom’s dream it is Christian faith that renders the children politically passive because it is focused exclusively on his promised reward in the afterlife. The conclusion the poem’s narrator draws, “So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm” (24 E 10) is a jarring non-sequitur in its refusal to recognize the unconscionable harm the sweepers are subjected to in the mortal realm.
Likewise, “The Chimney Sweeper” of Songs of Experience presents a narrator who is emphatic in his denunciation of “God & his Priest & King” (11 E 23) as the powers which authorize the social system responsible for his fate. Taken together, both of these poems can easily be read as a critique of the Church of England’s complicity in creating the brutal inequalities faced by the sweepers.
 In Chapter 13 of the Biographia, Coleridge is very careful to construct “[t]he primary IMAGINATION...as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM” (BL 304).
 The first stanza of “The Little Vagabond” in its negative characterization of the church suggests the ale halls are the home of a more giving spirit so to speak:
Dear Mother, dear Mother, the church is cold,
But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm;
Besides I can tell where I am use’d well,
Such usage in heaven will never do well (1-4 E 26)
 McElderry, “Coleridge,” 302 and 298.
Interestingly, Coleridge met
 Ferber, “Anacalyptic,” 189.
 Ibid., 190.
Beer, John, Coleridge the Visionary (
 Qtd. in Beer, ibid, 95 and 316n.
 Ferber, “Anacalyptic,” 191.
 Ibid., 192.
 “The inventions of William Blake, painter and poet” is reprinted in William Blake: The Critical Heritage, ed. G. E. Bentley, Jr., (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), 318-23.
 Qtd. in Deck, “A New Light,” 205.
 Deck, “A New Light,” 224.